Weather vane

Vanes. Weathercocks

If the poet Seneca was well informed, mankind, in the infancy of navigation, had no particular names for distinguishing the principal winds 661. This is not at all incredible; because with their rafts and floats, which were the first vessels, they for a long time ventured out to sea only so far that they could easily return to the shore; and therefore while navigation continued in this state, they had little reason to trouble themselves about the direction of the winds. It is more certain that those nations respecting whom we have the oldest information, distinguished by names the four principal winds only. This is generally proved by a passage in Homer, where he intends to mention all the winds, and names only four 662 ; but this proof is of little weight; for what poet at present would, with the like view, think of boxing the compass, or of introducing into a poem the names of all the thirty-two points? Would he not rather be satisfied with the names of the four chief winds alone? If more names, therefore, were usual in Homer's time, he would not consider it necessary to name them. In another passage he names only two winds 663 ; and from these some have endeavoured to prove that no more were then known; but this assertion indeed is completely refuted by the passage first quoted. It can, however, be easily proved, that for a long time names were given to the four principal winds only.

It is easily seen what at first gave rise to this distinction. The sun at noon stands always over one point of the horizon, which appears to the observer as a circle, having the place where he himself is at its centre. This point is called the meridian or south, and the one opposite to it the north. If the observer turns his face towards the north, he will have on his right-hand the east, and on his left the west. The space between these principal winds contains ninety degrees, or a right angle. The number, however, must soon have been raised to eight, and this division was usual in the time of Aristotle 664. Afterwards twelve points in the heavens were adopted, also as many winds; and in the time of Vitruvius twenty-four were distinguished and named, though this division was very little used. To determine the names, however, employed in the last two divisions is attended with some difficulties; and it almost appears as if writers did not always apply to them the same meaning.

The Greeks considered Æolus as the first person who made navigators acquainted with the winds. He is said to have ruled over the Volcanic islands, afterwards named the Æolian; and if this be true, he would certainly have a good opportunity of observing the weather, and marking the winds by the smoke continually rising up there from burning volcanoes. This celebrated personage, who received Ulysses on his return from the Trojan war, by the knowledge thus obtained may have assisted navigators, who afterwards made known the services which he rendered to them.

The antiquity of the division into thirty-two points, used at present, I am not able to determine. Riccioli thinks that they have been employed since the time of Charles the Great, but I do not know whether this can be proved. That assertion perhaps is founded only on the opinion, that this emperor gave German names to the winds and the quarters of the world. This indeed is stated by his historian Eginhart, who mentions the names, which I shall here insert, together with the Latin names added by Eginhart, and those usual at present 665.

Subsolanus Ostroniwind East.
Eurus Ostsundroni East-south-east.
Euroauster Sundostroni South-east.
Auster Sundroni South.
Austroafricus Sundwestroni South-south-west.
Africus Westsundroni South-west.
Zephyrus Westroni West.
Corus Westnordroni West-north-west.
Circius Nordwestroni North-west.
Septemtrio Nordroni North.
Aquilo Nordostroni North-north-east.
Vulturnus Ostnordroni North-east.

It has however been long since remarked, that these names are much older than Charles the Great 666 ; and it is highly probable that they were only more accurately defined, or publicly confirmed by this prince, or that in his time they came into general use. How often have early inventions been ascribed to sovereigns, though they were only made in their reign! Even whole nations have been said to be descended from those princes under whom they first became known to foreigners; as, for example, the Poles from Lech, and the Bohemians from Zech.

Charles, however, did not give names to thirty-two, but to twelve winds. Nor was he the first who added to the four cardinal points eight others, for the same thing is asserted of many. But it deserves to be remarked, that in Charles's names one can discover traces of that ingenious mode of denoting all the winds with four words; that is to say, by different combinations of East, West, South, and North. It is certain that the names of the different points and winds used by all the European nations, the Italians only excepted, are of German origin, as well as the greater part of the terms of art employed in navigation and naval architecture.

It appears to me not improbable that the division used at present was introduced soon after the invention of the magnetic needle; at least Honorius, surnamed Augustodunensis 667 , who must have flourished before the year 1125, speaks only of twelve winds; as do also Gervasius in 1211, and Vincent de Beauvois in the middle of the thirteenth century, who gives from Isidorus, who lived about the year 636, the twelve Latin names used by Eginhart 668.

It can scarcely be doubted that means for indicating the winds were invented at a very early period. I here allude to vanes, flags, and every other apparatus by which the direction of the wind can be conveniently and accurately discovered, and similar to those erected at present on many private houses, on most of our church steeples, and on board ships. I must however confess that I have hitherto scarcely observed any trace of them among the Greeks and the Romans. I can find no account of them in works where all the parts of edifices are named; where ships and everything belonging to them are expressly described; nothing in Pollux, and nothing in any of the poets. I am unacquainted also with any old Greek or Latin word that can be applied to an apparatus for pointing out the wind. In the edition of Kirsch's German and Latin Dictionary, printed in 1754, we find Wetterhahn  (a weathercock) petalumtriton ; but the latter term is borrowed from the tower of Andronicus, of which I shall have occasion to speak hereafter; and neither this word nor petulum, or petulæarum, which Kirsch gives also, occurs in this sense in any ancient author; and the case is the same with pinnacellaventilogium,aurologium, and other names which are to be found in some dictionaries.

I am acquainted with no older information in regard to an apparatus for observing the winds, than what is given by Vitruvius respecting the tower built at Athens by Andronicus Cyrrhestes, that is, of Cyrrhus, a town in Syria. This tower, which was built of marble, in an octagonal form, had on each side a representation of that wind opposite to which it was placed. Its summit terminated in a small spire, on which was a copper triton, made to turn in such a manner as to present its front to the wind, and to point with a rod held in its right-hand to the image of the wind blowing at the time 669. This tower is still standing; and a description and figure of it may be seen in the travels of Spon and Wheeler, and in those also of Pocock 670. The figures representing the winds, which are larger than the life, are executed in basso-relievo, and correspond to the seasons at which they generally blow. At the top of each side, under the architrave, the name of the wind is inscribed in Greek characters. Boreas, the North wind, holds in his hand a mussel-shell, which seems to denote his peculiar power over the sea. The Zephyr has its bosom full of flowers, because it prevails in March, at the time when the flowers chiefly blow in Greece; and similar attributes are assigned to the rest.

Varro had an apparatus of the same kind at his farm 671. Within the building was a circle, in which the eight winds were represented, and an index, like that of a clock, pointed to that wind which was blowing at the time. Nothing therefore was necessary but to look at the ceiling to know from what quarter the wind came. I have seen an apparatus of the same kind on some exchange, either at Lubec or Rotterdam. Varro calls the tower of Andronicus horologium, a word which Salmasius wishes to change into aurologium. But it contained also a sun-dial, as we are assured by Pocock, who observed the necessary hour-lines; and therefore it is not improbable, that the people, who through the want of clocks would oftener look to the dial than to the weathercock, gave to the tower a name alluding to the former rather than to the latter.

Du Cange says, that a triton, by way of weathercock, was placed on the temple of Androgeus at Rome; but I am unacquainted with the source from which he derived this information, and of that temple I have not been able to obtain any account 672. Whether the tritons placed on the temple of Saturn at Rome were indicators of the wind, or whether they had a learned signification, as Macrobius asserts, I will not venture to determine 673. It is probable that the pillar, some remains of which were found at Gaeta (Cajeta ), in the kingdom of Naples, and on which the names of the winds were cut out in Greek and Latin, served as a wind indicator also.

But it is more than probable that an apparatus for pointing out the wind, similar to that at Athens, was erected also at Constantinople. At least I consider as such what was called by some anemodulium, and by others anemoderium ; the information respecting which has not, as I conceive, been hitherto understood, not even by Banduri. In my opinion it was not a building or tower, but a column furnished with a vane, somewhat similar to what is still seen in many places on the sea coast, where a high pole is erected with a flag. This pillar, if I may be allowed the expression, consisted entirely of copper; it was square, and in height not inferior to the loftiest columns in the city. Its summit formed a pyramid, and, as I conjecture, an octagonal one, upon which stood a female figure that turned round with every wind, and consequently was a vane, only not a triton, as at Athens. Below it, on each side of the pyramid, were seen a great many figures, which I will venture to assert were attributes or images of the winds, to which the female figure pointed. Nicetas says, that there were observed among them birds, agricultural implements, the sea with shipping, fishing-boats, and naked cupids sporting with apples, which in my opinion denoted the different seasons in which each wind was accustomed to blow 674.

It is not improbable that the whole pillar was constructed of different pieces of copper, cast singly and then joined together; and it appears that neither Nicetas, nor Cedrenus, nor the Latins, who in the thirteenth century pulled down and melted the numerous objects of art, plundered from various cities by the emperor Constantine to ornament his capital, were acquainted with the purpose for which this pillar was originally destined, or the meaning of the emblematical figures represented upon it. Nay, there is even reason to think that the Greeks themselves, at this time, were so ignorant as to believe such objects to be the productions of magic. According to Cedrenus, this costly wind indicator was erected by Theodosius the Great, and according to others by Leo Isauricus. Were the first assertion true, it would belong to the fourth century, and in the second case to the eighth; but I cannot help suspecting that it was constructed before the time of Theodosius. The female figure which indicated the wind, was, according to Nicetas, called anemodoulon, but according to Cedrenus anemoderion. The former denotes a person who belongs to the wind; the latter one who contends with the wind; and both these appellations are well suited to a vane or wind indicator. If my explanation be correct, this work of art at Constantinople had nothing in common with the statue of Jupiter constructed by Lysippus at Tarentum 675. The latter was forty cubits in height; and what excited great astonishment was, that though it would shake when pushed with the hand, it withstood the force of the most violent storms. I should rather compare the statue of Lysippus to those moveable masses of rock which are mentioned by various authors, both ancient and modern.

It is not improbable that there may have been wind indicators of this kind in other places, and that more passages alluding to them, not hitherto remarked, may be found in different authors. Professor Michaelis, who was desirous to assist me in my researches, pointed out to me an account, undoubtedly written before the year 1151 676 , in which it is stated that there was at Hems, in Syria, formerly called Emessa, a high tower, on the summit of which was a copper statue of a horseman that turned with every wind. It is worthy of remark, that under the vane there were figures, among which was that of a scorpion; in all probability the emblem of some season.

In Europe, the custom of placing vanes on the summits of the church-steeples is very old; and as these vanes were made in the figure of a cock, they have thence been denominated weathercocks. In the Latin, therefore, of the middle ages, we meet with the words gallus  and ventilogium. The latter is used by Radulphus, who wrote about the year 1270 677. Mention of weathercocks occurs in the ninth 678 , eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth 679  centuries. There is no doubt that the cock was intended as an emblem of clerical vigilance. In the ages of ignorance the clergy frequently styled themselves the cocks of the Almighty, whose duty it was, like the cock which roused Peter, to call the people to repentance, or at any rate to church 680. The English, therefore, are mistaken when they suppose that the figure of a cock was first made choice of for vanes in the fourteenth century, under the reign of Edward III., in order to ridicule the French, with whom they were then at war; and that the custom of cock-throwing, that is to say, of throwing sticks at a cock exposed with his wings tied, as then practised, took its rise at the same time.

In France, in the twelfth century, none but noblemen were allowed to have vanes on their houses; nay, at one time this was the privilege of those who, at the storming of a town, first planted their standards on the ramparts. These vanes were painted with the knights' arms, or the arms were cut out in them, and in that case they were called panonceaux 681 .

Flags or vanes on ships occur very early, but they are always mentioned on account of their use in making signals. They were of various forms and colours; were sometimes drawn up, and sometimes taken down; placed sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left side of the ship, and were changed in various other ways, directions for which may be seen in the Tactics of the emperor Leo. They were named vexillaflammulæ, also flammula  and banda, and the last two appellations occur in the works of the younger Greek writers 682.

But though the oldest writers on the art of naval warfare, such as Vegetius, recommend a knowledge of the winds, I have not yet met with any certain account of apparatus for determining the direction of them on board a ship. Before the discovery of the magnetic needle, such accuracy as is necessary at present would have been superfluous; yet naval commanders must long before have had some means of distinguishing at least the twelve winds then defined, though no traces of them are to be found in the works which have been accidentally preserved to us.

Scheffer 683 , who, as is well-known, collected from the works of the ancients all the terms of art applicable to navigation, thinks that the band, tænia, affixed to a pole at the stern of the ship 684 , did not serve so much for an ornament as to indicate the course of the wind. He is, however, able to produce no other authority for this opinion than a passage in one of Cicero's letters, which has been changed and amended, till it at length seems to say that Cicero had resolved to embark, because the vanes had announced a favourable wind 685.

I must acknowledge that at present I can produce no older information in regard to vanes used on board ship, to indicate the course of the wind, than of the eleventh century, taken from the life of Emma, the consort of Canute the Great, king of Denmark, Norway and England, the author of which was an eye-witness of what he relates. Describing the magnificent Norman fleet sent to England in the year 1013, he says that birds, which turned round with the wind, were placed on the top of the masts 686.

At that time, therefore, instead of the flags used at present, a vane, shaped like a bird, was placed at the summit of the mast; perhaps also the figure of a cock, as the emblem of vigilance, but in this case not of clerical vigilance. In the cathedral of Bayeux, in France, is a piece of tapestry, representing the actions of William the Conqueror, executed with the needle, either by his consort or under her direction, in which vanes are seen at the top of the masts in many of the ships 687.

[Anemoscopes, or instruments for showing the direction of the wind, are now in constant use in meteorological establishments; the indications are made upon dials, and the apparatus does not differ in principle from that described by Beckmann.

Anemometers, or instruments for measuring the power or force of the wind, have also been contrived of various kinds. The first was invented by Wolf. In this the wind acted upon four sails somewhat resembling those of a windmill, the motion being communicated by cog-wheels to a lever loaded with a weight. When the wind acted upon the sails, the bar rose, this motion continuing until the increased leverage of the weight counterpoised the moving power of the wind. Others on a different principle have been made by Lind, Regnier, Martin, and a very beautiful instrument for this purpose, constructed by Mr. Dent, may be seen at Lloyd's room in the Royal Exchange.]


661  Medea, ver. 316.

662  Odyss. v. 295.

663  Iliad, ix. 5.

664  Aristot. Meteorol. ii. cap. 5 et 6. On this account, as Salmasius remarks, the book De Mundo cannot belong to Aristotle, as mention is made in it of twelve winds.

665  De Vita et Gestis Caroli Magni. Traj. 1711, 4to, pp. 132, 133.

666  Adelung's Wörterbuch, under the word East.

667  Of the writings of this monk, whom I shall again have occasion to quote, separate editions are scarce. They are however to be found in Maxima Bibliotheca Patrum, tom. xx.

668  Speculum Natur. iv. 34, p. 254.

669  Vitruv. i. 6, p. 41.

670  See Stuart's Antiquities of Athens, i. 3, tab. i.—xix.

671  Varro De Re Rust. iii. 5. 17. Our common weathercocks and vanes, when well made, and preserved from rust, show the point from which the wind proceeds, but do not tell their names. By the vanes on church steeples, one knows that our churches stand in a direction from east to west, and that the altar is placed in the eastern end. On other buildings an arrow, which points to the north, is placed under the vane.

672  Du Cange refers to Anonymus de Arte Architectonica, cap. 2.

673  Saturn. i. 8, p. 223.

674  The passage of Nicetas may be found in Fabricii Biblioth. Græca, vi. p. 407, and in Banduri Imperium Orientale, Par. 1711, fol. tom. i. lib. vi. p. 108. Nicetas speaks of it again in lib. ii. de Andronico, Venet. 1729, fol. p. 175. He there says that the emperor was desirous of placing his image on the anemodulium, where the cupids stood. Another writer, in Banduri Imper. Orient. i. p. iii. lib. i. p. 17, says expressly that the twelve winds were represented on it, and that it was erected with much astronomical knowledge by Heliodorus, in the time of Leo Isauricus.

675  Plin. Hist. Nat. xxxiv. 7. sect. 18. p. 647.

676  Geographia Nubiensis. Parisiis, 1619, 4to, p. 118.

677  In Vita S. Richardi Cicestrensis. See also Du Cange.

678  In Ughelli Italia Sacra, Romæ, 1652, fol. iv. p. 735, we find the following inscription on a weathercock then existing at Brixen:—“Dominus Rampertus Episc. gallum hunc fieri præcepit an. 820.”

679  Raynerus; cap. 5.

680  Ambrosius, v. cap. 24.—Vossius de Idol. iii. cap. 86.—Pierii Valeriani Hieroglyphica. Franc. ad M. 1678, p. 288.

681  Dictionnaire à Trevoux, 1704, fol. article Girouette.

682  Hirtius de Bello Alexand. cap. 45.—Tacit. Annal. 22.—Livius, lib. xxxvii. cap. 24.—Leonis Tactica, cap. 19, § 40, 42, pp. 342, 343, edit. Meursii. Lugd. Bat. 1612, 4to.

683  De Milit. Navali. Upsaliæ, 1654.

684  Pollux, i. 9, § 90, p. 61.

685  Epist. ad Atticum, v. 12.

686  The Encomium Emmæ is printed in Du Chesne, Historiæ Normannor. Scriptor. Paris, 1619, fol.

687  This honourable memorial of the last half of the eleventh century is explained and illustrated by a figure in Mémoires de l'Academ. des Inscript. Paris, 1733, 4to, vol. viii. p. 602.